Networking the Connection

Students from the Arava-Australia partnership; courtesy The Jewish Agency International School Twining Network.

The Jewish Agency’s International School Twinning Network, a new outgrowth of Partnership2Gether’s platform, recently launched an online network to upgrade Israel-Diaspora educational engagement and strengthen the connection between participating schools.

by Ilana Kraus

By promoting the exchange and sharing of ideas, increasing professionalism, and setting curriculum standards, Partnership2Gether’s International School Twinning Network is enhancing existing school partnerships and making it easier for new ones to get started, explains Hagar Shoham Marko, director of the Network. Up to now, more than 400 schools, including a total of 230 “twins” in Israel and the Diaspora, have created reciprocal relationships, but they have been operating on their own, in a sort of vacuum.

In a short time, the International School Twinning Network has already proven its worth as a platform where educators can have interchanges with colleagues and find professional materials, and schools and communities can interact. The idea is to learn from the success of others. “Schools no longer have to reinvent the wheel,” declares Shoham Marko.

Forum for communicating

School twinning isn’t “pen pals” or social chit-chat through Facebook, but an ongoing commitment to engage in joint educational projects, peer learning and study. It brings together Israeli children, from preschool to 12th grade, with their peers in Jewish day schools and afternoon Hebrew schools, mainly in North America but also in England, Mexico, Australia and the former Soviet Union (FSU). The Jewish Agency hopes to expand the network to other countries, such as France and additional FSU Jewish communities where Partnership2Gether does not currently operate.

Using Skype, video conferencing, e-mail and the Internet, students on opposite sides of the ocean can, for example, study together a book such as “Night” by Elie Wiesel, create a joint environmental project for Tu B’Shvat, and celebrate holidays. These activities do not usually replace regular classes but, rather, enhance the learning of Israel and Jewish studies, Hebrew, English, social studies and other subjects. In some cases, actual exchange visits of students and teachers also take place.

Most importantly, the program “changes the way youngsters look at the Israel-Diaspora connection. Israeli kids learn that Israel is not the only place where Jews live,” Shoham Marko underscores. “In Jewish schools, they learn that Israel isn’t just a place on a map, with citrus orchards and sand. Through authentic, meaningful experiences, they learn that Israel is people, that the Jewish people is am echad.”

Now, with the establishment of the Network, the processes set in motion by school twinning are being enhanced, Shoham Marko explains, adding that, “The Network makes materials, knowledge and experience accessible to all the partnerships. Teachers can find lesson plans, how-to manuals, video conference guidelines. There will also be teacher training opportunities.” All the grass roots diversity that has been part of the school twinning experience will now be available for everyone to learn from.

In addition to providing a mentoring system for new twinnings, and a bank of educational and programmatic tools, the Network will also function as a forum for members to communicate, exchange ideas and improve twinning operations. Shoham Marko explains that, “included in the Network’s developmental plan are communities of practice in Israel and overseas – the first of which was just recently launched – as well as the setting of educational standards and benchmarks to help schools understand what they and their students can expect to achieve from the process.” She stresses that educators will be involved in formulating these standards. The Network also addresses the need for educating educators and raising  the program’s professional level.

Following the December 2011 launching of the Network, annual conferences will be held to strengthen ties between staff in twinned schools, and deepen dialogue through face-to-face contact. The second annual conference took place in Israel on December 10th, 2012, and the first international conference will take place in the New York area in May.

Israeli high school student Ilana Shel (r) lights candles for the 3rd night of Chanukah with Karen Pali, a Jewish educator from Argentina, at The Jewish Agency for Israel’s School Twinning Conference in Israel; photo by Lior Daskal.

Far-reaching impact

With undisguised enthusiasm, Ahuva Ron, Senior Education Director of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, praises the school twinning program and underlines three circles impacted by the project. The core is the lasting ties developed among the students, whether on-line, in person or both, including joint bar mitzvah celebrations, family trips and holidays that grow out of these relationships. The second is the school – each grade level and class – and specifically the curricula created where American students learn about Israel and Zionism; while in Israel emphasis is on Jewish identity, connecting with the Diaspora and Jews living outside Israel. The third circle is the whole community: synagogues in America and neighborhoods in Israel.

“Twinning brings Israel to the Diaspora and vice versa. It’s really reciprocal; we have to connect them. This is our strength. There are lots of programs,” Ron adds, “but this is unique because it is built on personal relationships, school to school. Over the years, two communities become one shared community.” Due to the ongoing educational engagement, we are witness to a tangible change in the culture of participating schools.

An exchange of ideas

Since its inception, the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv twinning efforts have impacted over 60,000 people, says Ron, and now encompass 41 schools – 20 in Israel, 20 in Los Angeles and one in Vilnius, Lithuania. As for the Network, “even though it is relatively new, compared to the 14 years of experience accumulated by Los Angeles, it is already effective. It showcases curricula and projects that work and allows for an exchange of ideas.”

Under the Los Angeles model, about 700 Israeli and American students, mainly at the 6th-10th grade levels, travel between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv every year, staying from ten days to three weeks. “Our New Community Jewish High School and Tichon Hadash have a two and a half month exchange program,” Ron elaborates. “It includes home hospitality as well as time spent in the school. This creates lasting personal relationships between families and students.”

One model that may inspire other partnerships is the triangle created by linking the Shalom Aleichem School in Vilnius with Kehilat Yisrael, a Reconstructionist afternoon school in Los Angeles that stresses world Jewry, and Shevah Mofet in Tel Aviv, which has an abundance of Russian speakers. “So far,” Ron explains, “the staff and the principals of the schools met in Tel Aviv in October 2011. In February 2012, teachers from the three schools met in Vilnius to discuss and build the program. Students will meet for the first time in Tel Aviv at Shevah Mofet for the last two weeks of December 2012.”

Models for others

Eliad Ben Shushan, educational coordinator for the Western Galilee-Central Area Partnership Consortium, also emphasizes that “these relationships carry on even after graduation and the army.” Ben Shushan’s partnership, which includes the city of Acco and the Mateh Asher Regional Council, is demographically diverse. So it is no surprise that one of their school twinning models involves the Eilon-Cabri school, a kibbutz institution, the Sheikh Danun school, and a school in Dallas, Texas. “This certainly shows a different face of Israel than what people see in the media regarding Arab-Jewish interaction.” Another successful partnership involves a Haredi school in South Bend, Indiana and a state religious school in Acco.

Western Galilee, which is partnered with 13 Diaspora communities in the consortium, boasts several school twinning accomplishments. “One has connected 9th graders from Indianapolis with bereaved families in our region. Their final project was to create a ceremony for Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day ), in which they told the stories of the soldiers whose families they had adopted,” says Ben Shushan.

Unlike other twinning activities, this region operates a low-tech project to connect families. “We use snail mail and stamps. They (all the generations ) write letters and send pictures once a month.” Ben Shushan is also excited about the International School Twinning Network. “We’ve put our projects out there and they can serve as models for other communities, who for the first time can see what we do. It’s an information bank, and strengthens the connections among the communities. Our ‘Families Project,’ for example, is now being reviewed and considered by other partnerships. It is a platform for sharing, and joining, and offering guidelines.”

courtesy The Jewish Agency for Israel